Mathieu van der Poel and the issue dividing the peloton at Paris-Roubaix

The ‘Hell of the North’ is predictably unpredictable but Van der Poel starts as a major favourite for the men’s race, while there could be double Dutch delight with Marianne Vos a major contender in the women’s race

Harry Latham-Coyle
Friday 05 April 2024 19:53 BST
Mathieu van der Poel is hoping to complete a Tour of Flanders/Paris-Roubaix double
Mathieu van der Poel is hoping to complete a Tour of Flanders/Paris-Roubaix double (AP)

It remains cycling’s great adventure in self-flagellation, a race so outlandish that, were it proposed now, would surely not pass muster. This weekend, the hardiest men and women in the peloton will hurl themselves through the northern French countryside, making the annual pilgrimage over the pockmarked, perverted pavé to the holy velodrome of Roubaix.

One’s fate in the “Hell of the North” is at the whim of Beelzebub below. A rider’s season can be ended in a twist of tyres, tossed aside by an upturned cobble or a clump of mud. Only the fittest and most fortunate will make it to the finishing circuit.

This is a contest that does not lend itself to favourites but on the start line on Sunday, all eyes will be on one man. Mathieu van der Poel will set off bidding to retain his Paris-Roubaix crown, lifting again the celebratory cobble presented each year to the winner. He will push down on his pedals with the belief that only the best carry, ready to further cement his place as one of the sport’s premier classicists.

Mathieu van der Poel is hoping to retain his Paris-Roubaix crown
Mathieu van der Poel is hoping to retain his Paris-Roubaix crown (AP)

It is 15 years since a rider last took back-to-back titles here but Van der Poel has a strong chance of emulating Tom Boonen’s feat. Last weekend, the Dutchman blasted his way to a third win at the Tour of Flanders, that similarly gruelling romp across the Belgian bergs, leaving the rest of the field eddied in his wake as he blasted up the Koppenberg, a dominating, demoralising performance. “I did my absolute best but I just ran out of talent,” said Visma Lease-a-Bike’s Matteo Jorgenson, who blew up trying to follow Van der Poel’s wheel. “The lights went out.”

Van der Poel’s consistency is remarkable. Only once in his career has he started one of cycling’s five biggest one-day races and finished outside the top 10; already he has five victories, including three in Flanders, to his name. Another win on Sunday would put him alongside two of the other great 21st-century Monuments men – Boonen and Fabian Cancellara – in winning both of the cobbled classics in the same year.

The world champion won’t be going it alone, either. Alpecin-Deceuninck boast Milan-San Remo winner Jasper Philipsen among their squad, plus the hardy Silvan Dillier, Gianni Vermeersch and Søren Kragh Andersen. A repeat of last year, when Philipsen pipped Wout van Aert for second behind his teammate, is a distinct possibility.

Paris-Roubaix is one of cycling’s most gruelling events
Paris-Roubaix is one of cycling’s most gruelling events (AFP via Getty)

“We have more riders that are capable of going longer in Roubaix than in other races,” said Van der Poel. “If we can create a situation like we did last year, I think that benefits both of us. We can win the race in different ways and that’s for sure our strength as a duo.

“Jasper proved last year that he’s one of the favourites as well. That was really impressive. You need luck as well. Last year we didn’t have any punctures or bad luck and that’s super important in Paris-Roubaix.”

With Van Aert’s absence leaving few in the field capable of matching Van der Poel’s power, much of the pre-race build-up has instead been dominated by discussions about rider safety. For years, the peloton has careered into the pivotal stretch of cobbles through the Trouée d’Arenberg at speeds in excess of 60km per hour (37mph), making any tumble severe. Organisers will now place barriers to create a chicane at the entrance to the pavé, slowing speeds to try to prevent serious incidents.

The Arenberg Forest comes at a crucial point in Paris-Roubaix
The Arenberg Forest comes at a crucial point in Paris-Roubaix (Getty)

A horrible crash involving Jonas Vingegaard and Remco Evenepoel in the Basque Country on Thursday brought the topic further into focus but not all riders are sold on the chicane’s introduction. “I think it’s good that they’re trying something. But in my opinion, the chicane is not the right solution and also to do it in the week before the race is not the best option either,” Van der Poel said. “Obviously, it’s one of the most dangerous places of the season, so it’s good that they’re thinking about change, but for me change isn’t always the best thing to do.

“If you go into Arenberg in 20th position, it’s pretty good, you’re still in the race, but if you go into the chicane in 20th position, I think everyone who is after positions five to 10 will get stuck and then you easily lose 30 seconds.”

There could well be double Dutch delight come Sunday night. As has become tradition, the women will grace the cobbles first on Saturday, with an unexpectedly warm forecast likely to please the peloton. Paris-Roubaix is one of the few races missing from the extraordinary palmares of the incomparable Marianne Vos, recent winner of a 250th road race at Dwars door Vlaanderen.

The remarkable Marianne Vos will chase a first Paris-Roubaix win
The remarkable Marianne Vos will chase a first Paris-Roubaix win (Getty)

It would feel peculiar if the 36-year-old Vos concludes her career without a Paris-Roubaix win. Of course, there was no women’s race for her to chase for the first 15 years in the senior and lady luck has not been on her side since a second-placed finish behind Lizzie Deignan in the inaugural edition, a positive Covid test scuppering her chances in 2022 before an untimely mechanical last year.

Standing in her way might well be SD Worx, cycling’s super team, and Lotte Kopecky, who like Vos has the bike-handling skill, toughness and finishing kick needed to prevail.

“There is something heroic about Paris-Roubaix,” explained Vos this week. “From the first edition, it immediately became one of the highlights of our calendar.

“You know it will be challenging, and the odds have to be in your favour. Some things are under your control; some are not. The only thing you can do is to be as fit as possible and try to stay out of trouble. You have to be ready for whatever comes your way.”

The women’s Paris-Roubaix race is on Saturday, starting at 12.45pm UK time. The men’s race is on Sunday, starting at 10.25am UK time. Coverage of both is on Eurosport and Discovery +

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